National Institutes of Health plans to reduce use of chimps in research

Mike Krumboltz
The Lookout

Chimpanzees (Thinkstock)
Chimpanzees (Thinkstock)

The National Institutes of Health announced that the agency plans to "substantially reduce the use of chimpanzees in NIH-funded biomedical research." The agency also plans to designate for retirement most of the chimps currently on its roster.

All told, about 310 chimps will be retired to the Federal Sanctuary System in the next few years. The NIH will keep 50 chimps available for further research, if it proves necessary. Animal rights organizations have long been pressuring the NIH to end studies on chimpanzees.

In a press release, NIH Director Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D., said the use of chimps in biomedical research has been valuable in the past, but that new technologies "have rendered their use in research largely unnecessary." Collins wrote that the agency received guidance from many groups and that he is confident the decision to reduce the use of chimps in research is both "scientifically sound and the right thing to do."

The decision was applauded by the Humane Society of the United States. "This is a significant agency decision that will bring about positive and sweeping changes for government-owned chimpanzees in laboratories," said Wayne Pacelle, president of the organization.

The NIH will seek approximately $3 million in congressional funding to house the chimps in sanctuaries, according to The Washington Post. It's unclear where exactly those chimps will go. The AP reports that some might eventually join the Chimp Haven sanctuary in Louisiana. Chimps placed in sanctuaries cannot, by law, be returned to research, according to the Post.

The NIH decision, which was long expected, follows proposals by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to classify all chimpanzees as endangered. According to the Guardian, wild chimpanzees are listed as "endangered," but captive chimpanzees are listed as "threatened," which means less governmental protection.

Should that reclassification occur, it would translate into even stricter regulations around the use of chimps in research.

Animals rights groups and some research physicians have pressured the agency to end its use of invasive research, saying the studies were unnecessary. In January, an advisory panel for NIH agreed, issuing 28 recommendations, including the retirement of all but up to 50 chimps, to assure that at least some research that might be crucial to human health using higher primates can continue.